by Les Malezer

Former Chairperson of the Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus on the Declaration

Issued for 13 September 2009


Exactly two years ago, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, we held our breaths as the inter governmental global authority considered the ballot to extricate 500 years of global prejudice against Indigenous populations.

As the votes were cast, the large and diverse observer delegations of Indigenous Peoples searched the voting screen in the hope that the time to celebrate had finally arrived.

It had.

One hundred and forty-four (144) governments realised the need to set in place a definitive international standard to protect the human rights of Indigenous Peoples, and a paltry four (4) governments remained fixed to recalcitrant political opposition.

By embracing the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples the United Nations issued unambiguous confirmation that Indigenous Peoples are collective, structured civilisations, entitled to the same human rights that all other peoples enjoy.

This simple but highly significant development in human rights, to concede the existence of Indigenous Peoples, and to confirm our human identity, ultimately will have a sweeping effect on the application of human rights law.

At the global level, it is as significant as the condemnation of slavery, as heralded by the Slavery Abolition Act in Britain in 1833.

Three countries – USA, New Zealand and Canada – remain opposed today to the Declaration.

Australia issued a strong statement of support for the Declaration on 3 April 2009, reversing its negative vote from two years ago.

New Zealand is on the verge of accepting the Declaration and public discussions are keeping the pressure upon the government to revise its opposition.

But as New Zealand grapples with the politics of supporting the Declaration, the persistent voices of opposition to Indigenous rights continue to cast hoary concerns within the New Zealand society.

‘Maori are not Indigenous Peoples.’

‘The Declaration winds back progress in the country.’

‘Maori will kick us out of New Zealand.’

Many of us recognise such miserable sentiments from the decades of extensive debate during the drafting stages of the Declaration.

A few years ago these viewpoints were very threatening and upsetting for us as we reasoned that human rights applied equally to Indigenous Peoples.

Now, following the strong support at the international level for equality and justice, these sentiments are not only redundant, regressive sentiments, they are droll.

In reality New Zealand has every reason to be proud of the Maori and to embrace the Declaration.

It is hard to conjure thoughts or recognition of New Zealand without leaning towards strong imagery of Maori identity and presence.

New Zealand is, so far as I know, the only nation in the world where the national anthem is sung in the Indigenous language, and if you do not know of the haka as a mode of New Zealand cultural reception then you do not know New Zealand at all.

Throughout the world we are waiting for USA, New Zealand and Canada to emerge from their ignobal dark stance rooted in empire dogma.

Time marches on and the Declaration is increasingly being used as the ethical gauge for Indigenous issues.

However, two years on, we are also witnessing the negative reactions following the attainment of a standard on the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous Peoples are being targeted by political groups who now feel the weight of tolerance and equality against their position of power and control.

Political insurgents are resorting to physical intimidations including killings to defy the Indigenous Peoples and their rights to their territories and resources.

In Latin America, particularly, there are recent cases of violent threats being made against Indigenous Peoples and their rightful place in the political life of the State.

In Columbia and Peru, we lament the recent murders of Indigenous leaders and the bullying of the Indigenous Peoples, victimised because they now claim, with the authority of the international voice for justice, the same rights as all other peoples.

In such countries, the government and the people must come to terms with the real meaning of the Declaration and the historical change represented by 13 September 2007.

In Peru and Columbia, as lives are lost and freedoms are threatened, we must believe that it is the ‘Wind of Change’ that blows around the world and that justice and strength for Indigenous Peoples are the only acceptable outcomes.

During the past year we have seen the spirit of the Declaration escalate in the workings of the United Nations.

The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, taking up the challenge of Article 42 of the Declaration, has now provided a assessment on legal standing of the rights of Indigenous Peoples and focussed the attention of governments, jurists and Indigenous representatives on the obligations that exist in international law to promote and protect those rights.

The Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has requested the Human Rights Council to ‘pay particular attention’ to the protection of Indigenous rights in its regular sessions, as well as to ensure the Universal Periodic Review procedures and examination of the periodic reports by the treaty bodies are adequately focussed upon Indigenous Peoples situations.

The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of Indigenous People has given notice of his intention to emphasise the significance of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and exhorted the successful implementation by States through ‘good faith engagement of indigenous peoples with States and the broader political and societal structures’.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights has stressed that eliminating discrimination is a duty of the highest order and is giving priority to discrimination-free societies and a world of equal treatment for all. The fundamental principle of non-discrimination is the leading theme of a sustained outreach effort.

The High Commissioner has pointed out in her report to the Human Rights Council that Indigenous Peoples in many countries endure age-old discrimination and exclusion, including land grabs, the suppression of traditional customs, and outright violence.

The Durban Review Conference, held in April 2009, has given clear and unambiguous support to the implementation of the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Outcome Document from the conference welcomed the adoption of the Declaration – a major priority of the Programme of Action from the Durban Conference in 2000 – and urged States to implement the rights.

But the main concern for the implementation of the Declaration lies with the role and responsibilities of States.

Implementation of the Declaration can only really be achieved if States and Indigenous Peoples work in cooperation and partnership to identify the challenges and agree upon the actions to be taken.

However States must accept that historical injustices and unequal treatment cannot remain unaddressed or be forgotten.

The States must be prepared to review their charters, laws and institutions to remove entrenched prejudices.

They must be committed to the restitution of lands and territories or where that cannot be fairly achieved, be prepared for compensation in an acceptable form.

Unquestionably, States must agree, with the consent of Indigenous Peoples, to the establishment of independent, objective and fair procedures and tribunals to resolve conflicts and disputes between States and Indigenous Peoples.

Without these fundamental approaches the situation of Indigenous Peoples may be trapped by the historically-derived disadvantages that they have suffered since colonisation or domination.

Ultimately, it is time for Indigenous Peoples to organise for change, by revising our relationships with the States to find solutions to long-standing problems and by healing any existing divisions within our communities that might impair our capacity to govern for our future well-being.

Two years ago the governments of the world accepted an international standard by which the rights and freedoms of the Indigenous Peoples are now to be adjudicated.

As another year passes we look for progressive change, and it is there.

But after centuries we are also impatient, so we want to do more than just read the Declaration; we want to live it.

So let us concentrate in the year ahead on the elimination of racial discrimination and the implementation of self-determination, and expect that next year our communities have experienced the positive elements of those winds of change.


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